Beyond a polarized discourse on Israel-Palestine on college campuses

American universities will soon open their doors for the fall term. With the capacity to influence views on Israel-Palestine during this tense time of conflict, and mobilize future leaders on campus, it would be a shame to waste the opportunity with continued ineffective polarization.

By Yasmeen Serhan

Though Israel’s latest operation in Gaza seems worlds away for some, it feels closer to home for many within Palestinian and Jewish communities. This, too, rings true for many college students, for whom the conflict is often displayed in the form of mock-checkpoints, controversial speaker events and public demonstrations on their campuses.

In the next few weeks, many American universities will begin opening their doors for the fall term, and hundreds of thousands of student activists will resume their efforts to educate their peers about matters that mean the most to them. With Israel’s violent operation in Gaza still fresh in mind – if not still in progress – it’s certain that the unrest in the region will have a profound impact on the ways in which Israel and Palestine groups orchestrate their advocacy on campus.

What is uncertain, however, is if such action will make any difference.

Students for Justice in Palestine activists at Boston's Northeastern University protest the school's decision to suspend SJP for one academic year, March 2014 (photo: Northeastern SJP)
Students for Justice in Palestine activists at Boston’s Northeastern University protest the school’s decision to suspend SJP for one academic year, March 2014 (photo: Northeastern SJP)

It certainly won’t with leaders like Chloe Valdary at the helm. Valdary, a student at the University of New Orleans and a consultant for the pro-Israel media-monitoring organization CAMERA, penned an op-ed Monday for Tablet Magazine in which she deplored Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) for what she called, “[invoking] my people’s struggle for your shoddy purposes.

Rather than address the areas in which she and SJP disagree in a thoughtful critique, Valdary instead resorted to slander, accusing the organization of promoting Arab supremacy, violence, and apartheid-like systems of rule in which Jews are barred from purchasing land and traveling to certain areas based solely on the fact that they are Jewish (the irony, of course, being that such restrictions could also aptly describe some of the realities of Palestinian life under military occupation). In doing so, Valdary attempted to collectively reduce an entire movement to an offensive stereotype, based on nothing more than the obscene pretext that it somehow suffers from inherent moral inferiority.

Not only was Valdary able to grossly mischaracterize SJP and its members as anti-Semitic, genocidal faux-activists with a hidden agenda, but she too managed to almost perfectly encapsulate why Israel-Palestine discourse on college campuses is often fraught with ineffective polarization. Like Valdery’s piece, such discourse is often successful only as much as it gratifies one perspective of the conflict, promising only to further alienate those with whom one disagrees.

Such is the case at most universities where Israel-Palestine advocacy is most prevalent. One example is the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has time and again taken center stage. In February a group of UCLA students brought forward a resolution calling for the UC system to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s military occupation in the Palestinian territories. Though the university’s Undergraduate Students Association Council voted 5-7-0 against the resolution, the decision followed a nearly nine-hour deliberation period, in which hundreds of students talked past each other in support for their respective side.

The conflict was again highlighted during the university’s student government elections, during which many students called for their leaders to sign a pledge to refrain from taking free or sponsored trips with certain pro-Israel organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and AIPAC, that could compromise their ability to remain objective regarding Israel-Palestine issues on campus. In both situations, the Westwood campus was divided along ideological lines, sparking intense polarization within the campus community.

Members of Students for Justice in Palestine hold a 'die-in' on campus in solidarity with the people of Gaza during Israel's Operation Protective Edge, March 3, 2014 (photo: SJP)
Members of Students for Justice in Palestine hold a ‘die-in’ on campus in solidarity with the people of Gaza, March 3, 2008 (photo: SJP)

College students have always played a critical role in facilitating social change. And just as students have historically advocated for solutions to issues worldwide, it remains crucial that American college students do the same – if not for their own inherent interest in the conflict, then at least for their government’s investment

But student activists must be willing to recognize that continued polarization is ineffective. While public demonstrations and protests may make a temporary statement, they often do little to educate those who know nothing about the conflict, and they certainly don’t engage those with whom they disagree. Thus, such displays often become nothing more than public confrontation and one-sided discussions, leaving little room for meaningful dialogue or learning.

The answer, of course, is not an end to public protests, which can often serve as important tools for peaceful demonstration and community building. Rather, it’s about investment in more opportunities for students to openly discuss and debate the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without fear of alienation or compromising one’s beliefs. At the very least, such events would provide a forum to educate students who don’t know much about the conflict and give them the confidence to start discussing it more with their peers. It may even allow someone with whom one might disagree to better understand an alternative view.

At no other time is ones life is the culture of education and engagement with new ideas more ubiquitous than in college – and it is not a time to be wasted. As the generation tasked with bringing about a just solution to this interminable conflict, it is imperative that we begin to take steps to engage with one another in a way that doesn’t recreate the generations that have passed this conflict down to us. We certainly won’t agree on everything, and we shouldn’t expect to. But at the very least, we can provide the forum and the tools to discuss Israel-Palestine in a way that allows students to not talk past each other, but with each other.

With the escalation and violence in the region at its worst in recent memory, the world is finally watching. Our actions in the coming months have the capacity to influence views and mobilize future leaders. It’d be a shame if we wasted it.

Yasmeen Serhan is a Palestinian-American student studying international relations at the University of Southern California. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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